“It was a pretty typical, grim startup,” said Hartzell, who jokingly refers to himself as Serial Number 001, as Azimuth’s first employee. “I was doing everything but painting yellow lines on the parking lot to keep the lights on.”
But as time passed, Hartzell’s persistence and leadership abilities have grown Azimuth into a company of nearly 100 employees and to be considered among the leading small businesses in the eastern half of the U.S. when it comes to fulfilling military contract obligations.
It is these qualities and experiences that have led Hartzell to being named West Virginia’s 2010 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Azimuth was founded by Hartzell’s desire to remain in West Virginia and to create a company that could successfully compete for, and win, Department of Defense contracts. Being a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, he was very aware of the business opportunities that could be generated through support of the military. But, he also knew as a one-person operation, he couldn’t do it alone.
“Early on there were a lot of people who either took pity on us or, for their own amusement, helped us out,” Hartzell said. “It was tough being a company trying to break into the government contracting arena in West Virginia in the early 1990’s. The focus was on natural resources and the high-technology ‘push’ hadn’t evolved.”
Hartzell can recall a few incidents where he received assistance, one being the time his insurance agent loaned him funds out of his own pocket to pay for a liability policy to enable him to obtain a contract. Another was when a lender pushed Hartzell’s small loan request through his loan committee when he didn’t have hard assets to secure it.
Another early key to success was the arrival of Electronic Warfare Associates (EWA), a large prime contractor for the Department of Defense, in the state. EWA identified Azimuth as a company they could work with and subsequently provided Hartzell a $79,000 sub-contract enabling him to hire his first full-time and part-time employees.
“That was really the start of Azimuth,” Hartzell said. “Through that relationship, we obtained the necessary clearances for secure high-level government contracting. This was also about the time the West Virginia High Technology Consortium was formed. With the support of Congressman Alan Mollohan, the Consortium was the impetus behind the creation of the I-79 high-technology corridor. His goal was to lay the groundwork for mature companies like EWA to come to West Virginia to act as mentors for our small businesses.”
Hartzell believes the mentoring aspect of this initiative was one of the most significant and valuable events in the history of Azimuth.
It was during this period the Department of Defense created a pilot Mentor/Protégé program under which Azimuth/EWA team was accepted.
“The experience under the DoD Mentor/Protégé Program really set us up for growth and how to perform properly on government contracts,” Hartzell said. “If you don’t perform well on government contracts, you aren’t going to make it.”
The contracting and sub-contracting opportunities obtained through the Mentor/Protégé Program made Hartzell realize he was in need “a very large stack of financial assistance” if he was to perform.
“We obtained two large SBA guaranteed loans which allowed us to purchase the equipment, software and tools we needed to successfully perform on those sub-contracts,” Hartzell said. “Through experience I’ve discovered without proper tools and test equipment, you can’t perform successfully.”
Hartzell is proud of the fact he never missed a loan payment and jokes when networking with SBA officials, “These guys were foolish enough to loan me half a million dollars and the punch line is ‘I paid them back!’”
Guaranteed lending was only one of SBA’s programs utilized by Azimuth.
“Barbara Weaver, SBA’s small business contracting specialist, played a very key role in our survival, like she has and continues to do for so many other West Virginia small businesses,” Hartzell said. “Her contracting expertise and guidance has led to increased contracting opportunities in the state.”
Another factor is an alliance that evolved among businesses in the high-tech corridor that led to the success of not only Azimuth, but of those businesses as well.
“We helped each other succeed,” Hartzell said. “We cooperated and helped each other right down the line. We competed against each other, and still do, but we’ve always helped each other. Those relationships were and are still very powerful.”
West Virginia’s work ethic and values are looked to by Hartzell as the real key to Azimuth’s success.
“We’re able to recruit and retain very talented and loyal people,” Hartzell said. “When asked by others about our success I say, ‘I could not have done this anywhere else in the country. The West Virginia values are what make Azimuth the company it is today.’ There are no doubt bigger and more profitable companies, but no one works harder or has more fun than we do.”
As a veteran and successful entrepreneur, Hartzell is always willing to provide advice to younger companies on the nuances of small business ownership.
“I’ve provided advice to many companies, not only here, but all over the country,” Hartzell said. “I tell them to know their goals and motives. Find your local small business development center, your procurement technical assistance center, and your local SBA. Seek out those individuals who can help fulfill your objectives.”
Hartzell is very happy to be selected as West Virginia’s top entrepreneur for 2010 stating he “accepts the award on behalf of the individuals at Azimuth and all those out there who have helped us over the years.” ARC loans are deferred-payment, SBA guaranteed loans, which can be up to $35,000. They are intended for established, viable, for-profit small businesses in need of short-term help to make their principal and interest payments on existing qualifying debt. ARC loans are interest-free to the borrower, 100 percent guaranteed by the SBA, and have no SBA fees associated with them.
ARC loans are made by commercial lenders, not SBA directly. For more information on ARC loans and the Recovery Act, visit the SBA’s web site at www.sba.gov/recovery or contact the West Virginia District Office (304) 623-5631.
One West Virginia lender has taken the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) charge of “helping to unlock the small business lending market to get capital flowing” very seriously. Main Street Bank, headquartered in Wheeling, W.Va., is responsible for over 21 percent of the total ARRA loans made in West Virginia since the inception of the program.
With 40 SBA-backed loan approvals totaling $2,728,100 as of January 13, 2010, Main Street Bank has stepped to the forefront and made a huge difference for each and every one of those small businesses. In fact, the 40 loans are responsible for creating and/or retaining 237 jobs in the northern panhandle region of West Virginia.
The ARRA, signed into law by President Obama on February 17, 2009, is making a difference for West Virginia’s small businesses. Since its signing, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has provided loan guaranties to 186 West Virginia small businesses through lending institutions for a total of $33.9 million.
Stimulus Retail Solutions is one small business which has benefited from SBA’s America’s Recovery Capital (ARC) loan program through Main Street Bank. This small independent software vendor located in Wheeling was experiencing cash flow issues due to the amount of time which lapsed between the completion of an installation and the actual receipt of payment. This created a situation where the company was spending more time trying to raise capital to pay creditors than on sales and marketing.
Benjamin Seidler, president of the company, approached Main Street Bank representatives Jim Croft and Todd Cover with his cash flow issues. They immediately thought of the interest-free, deferred payment ARC loan which was used to prepay creditors and solve the cash flow issue.
Another Wheeling company, Wilson Auto Glass, was facing the dilemma of having to reduce its staff as a result of the economic slowdown which also caused cash flow issues. The mild winter last year that reduced the need for windshield replacements, caused owner Paul Beck to seek financial assistance through an ARC loan, again through Main Street Bank.
After receiving a $35,000 ARC loan, the maximum available under the program, Beck was able to satisfy his creditors, retain his employee level, and keep his business viable.
“The ARC loan provides critical capital and support small businesses need to make it through the tough economic times,” said Judy McCauley, director of SBA’s West Virginia District Office. “Together with the other provisions of the Recovery Act, ARC loans are designed to free up capital and puts more money in the hands of West Virginia’s small businesses. I congratulate Main Street Bank on stepping up to help small businesses under the Recovery Act.”
In the late 1980’s, Craig Hartzell had a desire to create a company that could successfully compete for- and win- Department of Defense contracts. The U.S. Army Special Forces veteran was aware there were business opportunities with the military and that no West Virginia companies were doing so at the time. He also knew it would take an extraordinary effort because West Virginia’s economy was considered resource-based and not technology-based.
But through his persistence and leadership abilities, Azimuth, Incorporated was created which resulted in Hartzell, the company’s president and CEO, being named West Virginia’s 2010 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Hartzell will be honored at the annual West Virginia Small Business Awards luncheon on Thursday, May 13, 2010 at the Tamarack Conference Center in Beckley. He will also be recognized at the 47th annual National Small Business Week gala in Washington DC on Tuesday, May 25, 2010, where Hartzell will learn whether his name will be called as the National Small Business Person of the Year.
Azimuth specializes in engineering, fabrication and engineering services in support of the U.S. Department of Defense. Hartzell as the founder and first full time employee of Azimuth has over thirty years of experience in the fields of electronic communications, special operations and business management.
Hartzell realized in order to be successful, he had to create a company that could win contracts, provide outstanding support and build a solid reputation. He wanted a company that incorporated sound ethical principles, customer loyalty, and the highest standard of integrity and honesty. Although Azimuth is known by these principles today, they didn’t evolve without overcoming several obstacles.
Hartzell found he was competing for contracts with larger, well-established companies and coming up short. He realized what he needed was more experience and some clout. To overcome this disadvantage he entered into a Department of Defense Mentor/Protégé Program with Electronic Warfare Associates, (EWA) Inc., a large prime contractor for the DoD, serving as Azimuth’s corporate mentor. This association led to Azimuth’s first contract of $79,000 which allowed Hartzell to hire his first employees. It also provided Hartzell with some of the tools and experience he needed to build a solid performance core.
With a Mentor/Protégé agreement in place, Azimuth seemed to be on the right path to win government contracts. However, Hartzell soon realized the company lacked the necessary capital to meet the financial challenges of successful contract bidding. A loan through SBA’s 7(a) guaranty loan program was secured through a local lender that helped alleviate some of the initial funding issues. More frequent contract awards led to the need of another SBA-guaranteed loan. Hartzell credits the receipt of those two loans as being absolutely critical to the initial survival of Azimuth.
Through all of these efforts, Azimuth has evolved into a reputable defense contractor of nearly 100 employees operating in four facilities in West Virginia – two in Morgantown and two in Fairmont – and in satellite locations in Maryland, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina.
West Virginia SBA Director Judy McCauley said Hartzell epitomizes the criteria for the Small Business Person award and is an excellent representative for small business success in West Virginia.
Hartzell was nominated by Sharon Stratton, center manager for the West Virginia Small Business Development Center in Morgantown.
Also being honored at the 2010 West Virginia Small Business Awards Celebration on May 13th event are: Jalon “Jay” Petre, president of Renick Millworks, LLC, Renick as SBA Young Entrepreneur; C. Thomas and Rosemary Grant from First Choice Bookkeeping, Inc. in Huntington as Financial Services Champions; Diane Lewis, president of Action Facilities Management in Morgantown as Minority Small Business Champion; Kara Gray, owner of New Horizon Consulting in Dallas as Women in Business Champion; Scott M. Hedges, president & CEO and Michael J. Grady, vice president from Power Sonix, Inc. in Martinsburg as Small Business Exporters; and David M. Hughes, John M. Hughes and Fletcher G. Herold, Jr. from L.J. Hughes & Sons, Inc. in Summersville as *Jeffrey Butland Family-Owned Small Business. (*L.J. Hughes & Sons, Inc. also received this award for SBA Region III which includes Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.)